Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) Review

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) Review


Unlike the more straightforward Surface Pro 8, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 9 comes in two variants. One is the usual Intel model—now updated with speedy 12th Gen “Alder Lake” CPUs—but our review unit is the one with the Microsoft-designed, Arm-based processor made using a custom Qualcomm SQ3 processor. The Intel model starts at $999, the SQ3 at $1,299, and our SQ3 review unit is priced at $1,599 for a bump up to 16GB of memory and a 256GB solid-state drive.

Like the (now defunct) Arm-based Surface Pro X before it, running Windows on an Arm device means performance limits and compatibility issues with plenty of apps—drawbacks reflected in our less-than-stellar score. Differences go beyond the CPU, too: The Pro 9 has 5G support and some video call tricks, but only with the SQ3 model. Alongside a 21-hour battery life, these position the SQ3 Pro 9 as the ideal choice for mobile users who prioritize longevity and internet connectivity. Unfortunately, both models ditch the 3.5mm audio jack.

The fact that just mentioning the models requires an explanation of multiple caveats illustrates an issue. Both are Surface Pro 9 by name, but the experiences between the two vary drastically, creating confusion where the discontinued Surface Pro X made things clear. Choosing a configuration on Microsoft’s online store shunts the SQ3 off as one of several configuration options, burying the key differences. This will be especially easy to miss for less technically savvy shoppers, who are also likely missing context for Arm and Windows emulation.

Whichever model you choose, this is still an excellently built detachable with a premium design, mostly capable of replacing an everyday ultraportable, but try to be absolutely sure whether the Arm-based SQ3 can deliver the Windows experience you need. We can’t speak to the performance of the Intel-based option, but it’s safe to assume a faster, more plug-and-play experience with the same excellent build.

The Same Sleek Surface…Minus a Headphone Jack

With most of the Surface 9 updates focused on components and features, the physical design is mostly unchanged. We’ll get into the nitty gritty on the introduction of Arm, the jump to 12th Gen Intel (“Alder Lake”) Core processors, and the feature disparity between the different models, but let’s start with the build first.

(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)

The Surface Pro 8 really modernized the Pro line, taking cues from its Pro X counterpart to slim down and decrease screen bezels. As such, the Pro 9 wasn’t in need of a design update, so Microsoft stuck with what worked just a year ago. The quality aluminum chassis remains, with the exact same dimensions as its predecessor at 0.37 by 11.3 by 8.2 inches (HWD) and 1.94 pounds. A small exception here: Our SQ3 5G-enabled model is ever-so-slightly heavier at 1.95 pounds, thanks to the antennas.

Every few years, a redesign is warranted to adopt current trends, but it’s not necessary for every iterative release. Given our praise of the Pro 8’s style, that means the Pro 9 looks and feels great. Making the device thinner for the sake of it doesn’t add much, and may even limit the performance ceiling (see our latest Dell XPS 13 review for an example).

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) tablet face down on a table

(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)

There are still some changes, however, with one of the most noticeable being new color options for the device and keyboard. The Pro 8 came only in Graphite or Platinum, where the Pro 9 adds blue and green shades (Sapphire and Forest, officially) to the mix.

However, graphite and these two new colors are limited to the Intel version of the Pro 9. Our model is Platinum, the only color option for the SQ3-based Pro 9. The keyboard we were sent is the option that matches the new Sapphire color of the Intel model, adding a pop of color to the more traditional device’s sterile look.

The more controversial change is the removal of the headphone jack. Like various Apple products and (more recently) the new Dell XPS 13, this is the latest flagship computing device to drop the long-favored 3.5mm audio connector. Unlike the XPS 13, this doesn’t come with a USB-C-to-3.5mm adapter in the box to compensate.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) tablet and kickstand seen from the side

(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)

Also unlike the XPS 13, this hasn’t been removed in the name of going thinner than before. The Pro 9 is the same size as the Pro 8, as stated, and Microsoft explains that this is essentially a product decision, not a requirement. With many premium devices ditching the 3.5mm jack, the Surface team apparently figured it should do the same.

You can see the argument to some degree: Many buyers of $1,000-plus laptops and tablets already own Bluetooth headphones, and most phones already dropped the physical connection years ago. This positions the Surface to follow the iPhone and other high-end devices.

We’d be more understanding if dropping the jack had been an engineering necessity rather than an aesthetic and conceptual choice. People still like wired audio, or at least having the option to plug in. Wireless earbuds and headsets die, or need to be charged in advance for the next trip while you’re still working. Long story short, there are times you want to plug in some headphones, but you’ll have to go source your own adapter with the Surface Pro 9.

Still the 2-in-1 Design to Beat

While the display doesn’t differ from the Pro 8’s panel, it’s still worth a mention. The PixelSense screen is again a looker, with its 2,880-by-1,920-pixel resolution in a 3:2 aspect ratio. The screen still runs a 120Hz refresh rate, which, while normally reserved for gaming machines, makes everyday tasks like scrolling a web browser look smoother. It’s plenty bright, and touch-enabled to be used as a tablet and/or with the $99 Surface Pen (sold separately).

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) tablet screen look at head on

(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)

Also maintained in this edition: The best-in-class kickstand and detachable keyboard. The kickstand moves fluidly and flexes to a lower angle than most—not quite flat, but close. This is generally useful if your seating setup demands it, but more specifically, makes drawing with the Surface Pen much more intuitive.

The keyboard is also just about the best solution in the category, too, though we’re not as effusive. For starters, yes, it’s still sold separately: The standard Pro Keyboard is $139. The more advanced Signature Keyboard (which has a pen slot/charger built in) will run you $179, while the Signature Keyboard with the Slim Pen 2 is priced at $279.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) tablet with the Keyboard Cover attached

(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)

As with the Pro 8, it’s frustrating that they’re still sold at a pretty significant additional cost. Yes, the device is a functional tablet on its own, but “2-in-1” as a category implies it can be both a tablet and a laptop replacement inherently, and it is always shown or marketed as such. But it’s no laptop replacement without that $139 keyboard.

That aside, the keyboard is effective and satisfying to use. This solution isn’t new, so I won’t spend too much time here, but it really makes you feel like Microsoft nailed the “fold it up and go” format. It’s oddly satisfying to unpack the device after a commute or some travel, and feels like a truly productive mobile machine with it attached. The keyboard magnetically attaches to the bottom of the Surface’s screen with ease, and you can fold it up against the display to create an angle for more comfortable typing.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) tablet Keyboard up close

(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)

That said, the layout works much better if you have a table or desk to place the keyboard on. If you need to type with the Surface Pro balanced on your legs, it’s definitely less ideal. The tablet isn’t very wide, and the keyboard isn’t as sturdy as the bottom of a real laptop, so you have to keep your thighs level, still, and close together. Hey, maybe it’ll help your posture!

All told, the Surface Pro 9’s real-world usability remains high, even if it doesn’t perfectly replicate the laptop experience. Microsoft’s quality and execution are still the benchmarks for detachable 2-in-1s.

5G Connectivity and Arm Advantages

There are some premium features to go with the high-end build, including a 1080p webcam with Windows Hello support, a user-accessible SSD, and (in the Intel version only) Thunderbolt 4 support. Our Arm version features USB-C, too, but lacks Intel’s speedier Thunderbolt technology. The 1080p camera is a nice inclusion, as it’s noticeably sharper and better with less-than-ideal lighting than 720p alternatives.

As mentioned, many of the Pro 9’s features you’re likely to see advertised are exclusive to the Arm version, which is where shoppers have to be careful. Sometimes, you’re merely choosing between processors, but in this case, features that may be broadly advertised as Surface Pro 9 offerings are actually only available on the Arm-based SQ3 version. The average shopper may not know the difference between the Intel Core and SQ3 processors, but will want to pay attention to these distinctions.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) with keyboard and kickstand out seen from the side

(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)

The main one is 5G capability, exclusive to the Arm model. The chassis includes 12 nano-molded antenna slots for all wireless communication, and in support of full-spectrum 5G. Should you opt for this model and a data plan to support it, the Surface Pro 9 becomes a far more capable mobile device for professionals. The nano SIM slot resides beneath the kickstand (along with the accessible SSD), and the device also supports internal eSIM.

Being portable is well and good on its own, but built-in internet connectivity allows you to quickly pull out the Pro 9 wherever you set up and get real work done. Of course, the SQ3 comes with its own performance drawbacks, so more on that in a moment. These Arm models are fanless for quiet running, and indeed, our model is mightily quiet no matter what the processor load is at the time.

There are some more hidden advantages beyond 5G connectivity, too. The SQ3’s architecture includes a neural processing unit, which specializes in machine-learning applications. For the Pro 9, this manifests as some fancy features for your voice and video calls.

For one, the camera can automatically track your face and keep it in the center of the screen if you’re moving around, similar to Apple’s Center Stage iPad camera feature. This is pretty cool—it makes it feel like the camera is physically rotating to track you, like in a sci-fi TV show, but it’s just a trick of the software. This is useful if you’re standing or pacing while talking or presenting, or if there are two people using the camera.

There is also a background blur, similar to the effect built into applications like Zoom. It looks better than that, though, replicating higher-quality cameras and more intelligently cropping and blurring your background. We find it pretty effective at keeping us focused but blurring out some shelves in the backdrop, whereas Google Meet’s built-in blur often has the shelf popping in and out.

Perhaps most useful depending on your remote work conditions, the Voice Focus feature drastically cuts out or removes background noise. Yes, a similar feature is touted on nearly every microphone or application by now, but this AI-trained feature is impressively effective. Even loud sounds very close to your microphone are cut out entirely or made super quiet.

In the announcement stream, the feature was demonstrated with a leaf blower and hair dryer, and we were skeptical it worked that well. We tried it with various noises, however, can can say the feature definitely works.

Sometimes, in removing noises that are especially loud and close to the mic, it softens your voice and gives it an odd tone. Still, that’s an extreme case, and most background noises won’t be as constant or close to the mic. In the event of some background chatter, a passing car, or similar noises, Voice Focus will cut down the distractions.

It’s important to note that you can apply these features universally via Windows options, rather than having to turn them on individually in each application. If the latter is what you prefer, you can alternatively switch them on or off within individual software camera and video settings.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) tablet with Keyboard Cover seen head on

(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)

It would be nice to also have the features offered in the Intel version, but instead it will have to factor into your buying decision. The camera and voice features require the SQ3 hardware, so there’s no getting around that. There certainly could be an Intel-based version with 5G support, though not in the same Qualcomm-infused solution our model utilizes.

Microsoft explained in a press briefing that the Surface Pro X is being put to rest to avoid confusion between it and the numbered Surface Pro models, but I’m not sure it’s succeeded. The totally different product name at least signaled a potentially different feature set, but now you have some pretty core features and technologies both under the Pro 9 umbrella, but quietly separated behind the processor options. Microsoft’s store does highlight “the Surface Pro 9 with 5G”, but it isn’t immediately clear what you’re getting or giving up with those packages.

Configurations and Components: Intel or SQ3?

And so we come to the much-discussed component options. Let’s cover the Intel model first before getting to our review unit. The big jump is to Intel’s 12th Generation “Alder Lake” processors, where the Surface Pro 8 was running on 11th Gen chips.

The base model starts at $999 for a Core i5-1235U CPU, 8GB RAM, and a 128GB SSD. The Core i5 model maxes out at 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for $1,399. From there, you can opt for upgrades to a Core i7-1265U CPU, 16GB or 32GB of memory, and a 512GB SSD or 1TB SSD for $1,899 and $2,599, respectively. Note that there are a couple of color restrictions for the higher-end SKUs when ordering on the Intel side, and again, the SQ3 version only comes in platinum.

Our review unit, meanwhile, runs on Microsoft’s own Arm-powered SQ3 processor. First, there’s an upcharge for the Arm model, so the base model—even though it also has just 8GB RAM and 128GB of storage—is priced at $1,299.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3) tablet seen from the back

(Credit: Joseph Maldonado)

The particular review unit we have bumps up a few of those to 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for $1,599. The SQ3 tops out at $1,899 for 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage, with a couple of midrange models in between. There is no additional option for adding 5G to the SQ3 model; inherent support is built into the device itself and present in each config. This is presumably one of the factors in the higher cost compared with the base Intel model, and from there, it’s up to you to set up and pay for a data plan.

Beyond that, we can only provide so much technical insight into the SQ3 system-on-chip, as it’s customized for Surface. What we do know: It’s based on a Snapdragon processor developed with Qualcomm, and a device manager peek at the Adreno graphics chip gives us a hint that it’s the 8cx Gen 3, which has made appearances in other Arm-based Windows systems.

Testing the SQ3 Surface Pro 9: Where Windows on Arm Begins to Lose Luster

Normally, we have a suite of Windows-based benchmark tests we use to gauge the performance of our review systems, but the Arm platform here changes things. On Arm systems, Windows applications run through a layer of emulation, unless there is a version of the software built to run natively on the platform. Running through emulation usually leads to markedly slower performance, and should definitely be a consideration in your purchase.

As such, we did see some applications that simply didn’t run or ran slowly, so take heed. PCMark 10, for example, a staple of our testing suite, crashed when attempting to run the Applications benchmark.

For benchmarking purposes, we’ve selected a mix of applications with native Arm versions and browser-based tests so that we can fairly compare the results with some similar systems. Handbrake, Geekbench, and 3DMark are part of the usual Windows suite and happen to run natively on Arm, so we can compare those with Windows systems. Cinebench isn’t Arm native, but produced a respectable result, so we included it here. As Apple and Chromebook laptops also can’t run the usual Windows benchmarks, we’ll compare those results against those systems.

Given that, if you see the MacBook Air or both Chromebooks missing from a chart, or vice versa, that’s why—we’re comparing the uncommon Arm processor to the relevant systems we can when possible. Some of these tests are only run on Windows laptops, some only on Chromebooks or Apple laptops, and a small selection run on all three.

Here are the competing systems across these benchmark tests:

Productivity Tests

Primate Labs’ Geekbench 5.4 Pro simulates popular apps ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning, while Maxon’s Cinebench R23 uses that company’s Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene. We also use the open-source video transcoder HandBrake to convert a 12-minute video clip from 4K to 1080p resolution (lower times are better).

Finally, the two browser-based tests: Basemark Web 3.0 runs in a browser tab to combine low-level JavaScript calculations with CSS and WebGL content, while WebXPRT 3 contains six HTML5- and- JavaScript-based scenarios that replicate everyday tasks.

All things considered, for potential concerns over performance loss by going with the SQ3 chip over an Intel option, the Pro 9 acquits itself fairly well on these tests. The Geekbench result shows capable all-around performance, ahead of all but the potent Apple M2 chip. (This also underlines our disappointment with the design choices of the recent XPS 13, which can scarcely match any of these systems.)

The emulated Cinebench result is half decent, though it shows the difference in running through emulation versus natively. Even the web-based tests fall behind significantly.

The Handbrake time, though, is a major pitfall. Some long-burn tasks, and especially any strenuous workload like media editing, is a struggle on the Pro 9. This is pretty typical for what we see and expect from Arm-based Windows machines. You can see how much better the Pro 8 fared with its 11th Generation CPU, so you can imagine the superiority the Intel-based Pro 9 and its 12th Gen CPU would bring.

Graphics Tests

We test Windows PCs’ graphics with two simulations from UL’s 3DMark, Night Raid (a modest test suitable for laptops with integrated graphics) and Wild Life Extreme (a cross-platform test friendly to mobile computing).

None of these systems are expected to produce much in this category—thin-and-light laptops and tablets normally pack relatively weak integrated graphics. On Night Raid, the Adreno solution in the SQ3 Po 9 fares slightly better than the XPS’s 13’s limited power, but doesn’t match the Pro 8’s results. It also falls close to the M2 on Wild Life Extreme, to its credit.

Still, this level of power isn’t good for much more than a very light graphics load. Don’t expect to do much gaming on this machine, much less productively handle photo or video editing.

Battery Test

We test laptops’ battery life by playing a locally stored 720p video file with display brightness at 50% and audio volume at 100% until the system quits. We make sure the battery is fully charged before the test, with Wi-Fi and keyboard backlighting turned off.

You can’t say the SQ3 version doesn’t accomplish its goal on the battery life front. This monster result outlasts all of its rivals here, pushing toward truly all-day (not just all work day) battery life. This is a crucial result, as it underpins the whole concept of opting for the SQ3 version of the Pro 9. This device will last all day as you travel and work on the road, without worrying you about the next time you can plug in. More demanding tasks will drain the battery more quickly, of course, but you’re in for long battery life regardless.

All told, you’re definitely leaving some performance on the table by choosing the SQ3 Pro 9 over the Intel option, and setting yourself up for some potential software incompatibility. Some shoppers may know if this will be an issue for them, but many may not understand the differences.

If your intended workload isn’t demanding and this would largely serve as a mobile-first, 5G-enabled, long-lasting device for web browsing and everyday tasks, you’re probably okay with the SQ3 model. If you want to get more intense work done, use a lot of different applications freely, and are concerned about speed (particularly with rendering and exporting projects), the Intel model is the way to go.

Verdict: A Wealth of Surfaces, But Choose Carefully

More than before, you need to be careful when deciding whether the Surface Pro 9 is the right pick for you. Simply put, it’s not necessarily easy to make a universal pitch, as it was for the Pro 8.

Caveats of comparing to the Intel version aside, let’s look at what’s in front of us with the Surface Pro 9 SQ3 variant. The device feels as sleek and premium as ever, with a best-in-class kickstand and keyboard. The latter is still sold separately, and the combination can’t quite match up to a laptop, but this type of configuration has its own value. How much one misses the headphone jack will vary, but it doesn’t feel like a necessary exclusion.

The SQ3 version isn’t the best deal on a power and storage basis (more than 128GB for $1,299 would be nice), but it gets you excellent build quality, battery life, and useful camera features. For mobile-first users who are excited by 5G support, the SQ3 Pro 9 is an appealing package, and the nicest 2-in-1 detachable around. Consider it a viable alternative to the featherweight Dell XPS 13, a MacBook Air, or a portable Chromebook if the total package makes sense for you.

To those less interested in 5G and more concerned with performance, the Intel-based Surface Pro 9 is almost definitely faster and more capable of a set-it-and-forget-it Windows experience.

Microsoft Surface Pro 9 (SQ3)


  • SQ3 model delivers long battery life and 5G connectivity
  • Premium metal build
  • Best-in-class kickstand and keyboard cover design
  • SQ3 supports advanced camera and voice call features
  • Superior 1080p webcam
  • User-accessible SSD

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  • SQ3 processor brings the usual Arm-based drawbacks: lackluster performance and compatibility
  • Core feature differences between Intel and SQ3 models can be confusing
  • No headphone jack
  • Keyboard cover still sold separately
  • New colors only available on Intel model

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The Bottom Line

Offering Intel- and Arm-based versions of the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 widens both your options and caveats. The Arm-based SQ3 model delivers 5G support and a long-lasting battery at the expense of the overall Windows experience.

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